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Experts, industry leaders study fuel alternatives

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

Skyrocketing oil prices, a sharp increase in the cost of natural gas and imminent war with Iraq have experts and industry leaders taking a harder look at alternative fuels.

Biofuels - those made from vegetable and animal byproducts instead of petroleum – and the feasibility of producing them in Georgia were recently addressed at the Georgia Biofuels Symposium held on the University of Georgia campus.

"With over 600 gas stations in the U.S. charging more than $2 per gallon for gas, a reliance on foreign countries for 60 percent of the oil we use, and a host of negative environmental consequences, there are compelling reasons to pursue the commercial production of biofuels in Georgia," said Dale Threadgill, head of UGA's agricultural and biological engineering department in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Georgia's significant forest and agricultural resources may give the state an advantage in what some believe will be a booming new biofuel industry.

"In the same way that petroleum refineries transformed the 20th century, biofuels will transform the 21st century," said keynote speaker Helena Chum of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Co. "Georgia has a lot of potential to become a leader in this field, as we move from a petro-economy to a bio-economy."

A new fuel at the pump

Two problems – poor air quality in cities and depressed farm crop incomes – might make biodiesel production a unique opportunity for the state, said John McKissick, an agricultural economist with UGA's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. McKissick recently completed a feasibility study on biodiesel production in Georgia.

"Biodiesel could make significant reductions in certain exhaust emissions, improving air quality," McKissick said. "And generating income from animal fat and spent vegetable oil could be a boon to our poultry and farm industries."

Georgia annually produces about 55 million gallons of oilseeds and animal fats from which biodiesel could be produced. According to McKissick, these are the most economical sources for biodiesel in Georgia.

A big advantage of biodiesel is that existing diesel engines and equipment don't need to be altered in order to use it. "B-20 (a product made of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent diesel) can go right in the same gas tanks, using the same engines," he said.

However, McKissick estimates that even under the most ideal circumstances, biodiesel costs 9 cents more per gallon to produce than petroleum diesel. This could easily be remedied by a federal subsidy, similar to the one in place for the production of ethanol, another type of biofuel, produced mainly in the Midwest from corn, he said.

New sources of electricity

For electrical production, biofuels are more expensive than coal, but not by much, McKissick said. "If you used the most efficient technology, a bio gasifier, at the largest optimum scale, a ten percent subsidy would make it competitive with coal in the long-term," he said. "This is a commercial technology that's already being used in other parts of the country."

According to McKissick's studies, Georgia's most likely sources of biomass for electrical production are chicken litter, pecan hulls, cotton gin trash, wood chips and forestry waste products, all by-products of Georgia's largest industries and crops.

"It often costs companies to dispose of these products," he said. "So making biofuel out of them takes something of negative economic value and generates a positive."

UGA was the site of an important biofuel feasability study when the entire campus was heated for six weeks last winter using animal fats, oil and grease, said Tom Adams, the UGA engineer who headed the project.

"No modifications were made for the 1950s vintage boiler and no unusual problems or odor complaints occurred," he said. "The construction costs were $31,000 and fats are a renewable resource, with the U.S. producing about 11.6 billion pounds of animal fat each year."

(Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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